Tag: U.S. v. Jones

If You Think Smith v. Maryland Permits Mass Surveillance, You Haven’t Read Smith v. Maryland

… and you’re not following developments in Fourth Amendment law.

Jeffrey Toobin is the latest to claim that Smith v. Maryland settles the Fourth Amendment issues around the National Security Agency’s acquisition of data about every call made in the United States. He even links to the text of the decision in a recent blog post.

The majority opinion in Smith did say that people don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy in phone records, but that rationale is weak, and the facts of Smith are inapposite to the present controversy. I think that’s easily gathered from reading the case with awareness of legal currents.

Here’s what happened in Smith:

On March 5, 1976, in Baltimore, Md., Patricia McDonough was robbed. She gave the police a description of the robber and of a 1975 Monte Carlo automobile she had observed near the scene of the crime. After the robbery, McDonough began receiving threatening and obscene phone calls from a man identifying himself as the robber. On one occasion, the caller asked that she step out on her front porch; she did so, and saw the 1975 Monte Carlo she had earlier described to police moving slowly past her home. On March 16, police spotted a man who met McDonough’s description driving a 1975 Monte Carlo in her neighborhood. By tracing the license plate number, police learned that the car was registered in the name of petitioner, Michael Lee Smith.

The next day, the telephone company, at police request, installed a pen register at its central offices to record the numbers dialed from the telephone at petitioner’s home. The police did not get a warrant or court order before having the pen register installed. The register revealed that on March 17 a call was placed from petitioner’s home to McDonough’s phone. On the basis of this and other evidence, the police obtained a warrant to search petitioner’s residence. The search revealed that a page in petitioner’s phone book was turned down to the name and number of Patricia McDonough; the phone book was seized. Petitioner was arrested, and a six-man lineup was held on March 19. McDonough identified petitioner as the man who had robbed her. (citations omitted)

NSA Spying, NSA Lying, and Where the Fourth Amendment Is Going

If you want a good primer on the NSA spying disclosed so far, check out the item by Cato alum Tim Lee on the Washington Post’s WonkBlog. It’s a blessedly brief but informative run-down covering:

- mass collection of phone records;

- the PRISM program, which gathers data about Americans incidentally to its stated aim of foreign surveillance; and

- the NSA’s fiber optic eavesdropping: “[T]he NSA has a broad program (actually, several of them) to sweep up Internet traffic from fiber optic cables.”

Also, be sure to read the letter Senators Wyden (D-OR) and Udall (D-CO) sent to NSA head General Keith Alexander yesterday. In it, they point out inaccurate and misleading statements the NSA made in a recently distributed fact sheet. At a certain point, inaccuracies become willful.

On the question of whether surveillance of every American’s phone calling is constitutional, Lee notes how the government and its defenders will rely on a 1979 case called Smith v. Maryland. In that case, the government caused a telephone company to install a pen register at its central offices to record the numbers dialed from the home of a suspected robber. Applying doctrine that emerged from Katz v. United States (1967), the Court found that a person doesn’t have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in phone calling information, so no search occurs when the government collects and examines this information.

It takes willfulness of a different kind to rely on Smith as validation the NSA’s collection of highly revealing data about all of us. Smith dealt with one suspect, about whom there was already good evidence of criminality, if not a warrant. The NSA program collects call information about 300+ million innocent Americans under a court order. And the Supreme Court is moving away from Katz doctrine, having avoided relying on it in recent major Fourth Amendment cases such as Jardines (2013), Jones (2012), and Kyllo in 2001.

Nobody knows where exactly the Court is headed with the Fourth Amendment in the challenging area of communications, but I’ve argued for reaching back to the wisdom of Justice Butler, dissenting in Olmstead (1929):

Telephones are used generally for transmission of messages concerning official, social, business and personal affairs, including communications that are private and privileged – those between physician and patient, lawyer and client, parent and child, husband and wife. The contracts between telephone companies and users contemplate the private use of the facilities employed in the service. The communications belong to the parties between whom they pass.

Drug-Sniffing Dogs Are Sense-Enhancing Technology

The Supreme Court heard oral argument yesterday in Florida v. Jardines, a case that examined whether bringing a drug-sniffing dog to the front door of a home looking for drugs was a Fourth Amendment search.

Having attended the oral argument (transcript; audio forthcoming), my sense is that a majority on the Court thinks dog-sniffs at front doors (absent a warrant) go too far. But few of the justices know why. The one who does is Justice Kagan.

What rationale might the Court use to decide the case? Even after United States v. Jones threw open Fourth Amendment doctrine, the instinct for using “reasonable expectation of privacy” analysis is strong. (I’ve joked that many lawyers think the word “privacy” can’t be uttered without the prefix “reasonable expectation of.”) This is where much of the discussion focused, and Justice Breyer seemed the most firmly committed to its use.

But the insufficiency of “reasonable expectation” doctrine for providing a decision rule was apparent when Breyer teed up Jardines’s counsel to knock the case out of the park. There was much discussion of what one reasonably expects at the front door of a home. Neighbors may come up. Trick-or-treaters may come up. Neighbors may come up with their dogs. The police may come to the door for a “knock and talk.” Neighbors, trick-or-treaters, dogs, and police officers may all come up and discover odors coming from the house. What makes the drug-sniffing dog unexpected?, Justice Breyer asked:

Do in fact policemen, like other people, come up and breathe? Yes. Do we expect it? Yes, we expect people to come up and breathe. But do we expect them to do what happened here? And at that point, I get into the question: What happened here?

Joelis Jardines’s counsel could not say what made the dog unexpected.

Perhaps property law draws the line that excludes government agents with drug-sniffing dogs, while allowing other visitors to come to the door. Not so. Justice Alito in particular pressed Jardines’s counsel for any case that had excluded dogs (drug-sniffing or otherwise) from the implied consent one gives to visitors on the walk and at the front door. The argument is unavailing, this idea that Florida’s property law (put into play by the majority holding in Jones, which relied on property rights) solve this case. Florida property law doesn’t exclude dogs from the implied permission it gives to lawful visitors on residential property.

None of this is to say that the government had it easy. Florida’s counsel had uttered just three sentences when Justice Kennedy informed him that the rule from Illinois v. Caballes would not carry the day. In Caballes, the Court found there to be no search at all when government agents walked a drug-sniffing dog around a car stopped for other reasons. (I attacked what I called the “Jacobsen/Caballes corollary” to the Katz decision in the Cato Institute’s brief to the Court, and also in this Jurist commentary.)

It won’t be the rule from Caballes. So what is the rationale that decides this case?

Justice Scalia was on the scent when he reasoned with the government’s counsel about what might be done with binoculars.

“As I understand the law,” he said, “the police are entitled to use binoculars to look into the house if—if the residents leave the blinds open, right?”

Florida’s counsel agreed.

“But if they can’t see clearly enough from a distance, they’re not entitled to go onto the curtilage of the house, inside the gate, and use the binoculars from that vantage point, are they?”

“They’re not, Your Honor.”

“Why isn’t it the same thing with the dog?”

Justice Kagan knows that it is. And she used Justice Scalia’s reasoning in Kyllo v. United States, the precedent that is on all fours with this case.

She recited from Kyllo: “ ‘We think that obtaining by sense-enhancing technology any information regarding the interior of the home that could not otherwise have been obtained without physical intrusion into a constitutionally protected area constitutes a search, at least where, as here, the technology in question is not in general public use.’” And she asked Florida’s counsel, “[W]hat part of that language does not apply in this case?”

“Franky’s nose is not technology,” he replied, referring to the dog. “It’s—he’s using—he’s availing himself of God-given senses in the way that dogs have helped mankind for centuries.”

The existence of dogs in human society for centuries might help the government if dogs had been used for drug-detection all this time. And then only if the question was what it is reasonable to expect.

What matters is that a drug-sniffing dog is indeed a form of sense-enhancing technology. Selected for its strong sense of smell, and trained to convey when particular odors are present, a drug-sniffing dog makes perceptible to law enforcement what is otherwise imperceptible.

And that is the very definition of searching. At least as Black’s Law Dictionary has it: “‘Search’ consists of looking for or seeking out that which is otherwise concealed from view.”

Police officers use dogs to search for drugs and other materials in which they are interested but which they cannot see by themselves. A drug-sniffing dog is a cuddly chromatograph.

And just now, quietly, you have seen at work the rationale that the Supreme Court should use to decide Florida v. Jardines. Was it a search to bring a drug-sniffing dog to the front door of a house? The Court should apply the plain meaning of the word “search” to the facts of the case that has come before it. There’s no need for doctrine at all.

The Fourth Amendment in the Supreme Court This Week

Prior to the development of trade and commerce, movable property was “not esteemed of so high a nature, nor paid so much regard to by the law,” Blackstone tells us in his commentaries on the laws of England. Such property in transit was routinely confiscated by authorities or tariffed at exorbitant rates.

When commercial relations expanded, the quantity and value of personal property increased, and the law “learned to conceive different ideas of it.” Legal protection for movable property increased.

In parallel to the growth of commerce in movables centuries ago, commerce in information is on the rise today. It may be time to “conceive different ideas of it” as well—different ideas that accord information similar protection. This is what a group of amici have encouraged the Supreme Court to do in a brief on an important privacy case being argued this week.

In Clapper v. Amnesty International, the Gun Owners Foundation, Gun Owners of America, Inc., the U.S. Justice Foundation, the Downsize D.C. Foundation, DownsizeDC.org, and the Conservative Legal Defense and Education Fund have argued that the Court should recognize a property interest in confidential communications. Doing so would more clearly establish the standing of the respondents in this case to challenge the global wiretapping program Congress established in the FISA Amendments Act of 2008.

William J. Olson, lead counsel on the brief, articulated the issues well in an email distributing it:

Our amicus brief in the Clapper case extrapolates from the court’s holding in Jones and identifies the property interests at stake in this case as confidential communications that are critical to the practice of law and of the enterprise of journalism. Using a property analysis, the citizens in Clapper have a protectable property interest in their electronic communications as they do in their written communications. Thus, even though plaintiffs are not “targeted” by the Government, the Government’s contention that their search and seizure of plaintiffs’ communications is only “incidental” is unavailing.

Jones v. United States, of course, is the case decided in January, in which government agents tracked a suspect’s car for four weeks using a GPS device without a valid warrant. The Supreme Court found unanimously that this violated the Fourth Amendment. My article in the most recent Cato Supreme Court Review (2011-12) analyzes the case, and you can get a taste of that analysis in the most recent Cato Policy Report (September/October 2012).

I also discussed the Fourth Amendment status of communications in the Cato Institute’s brief in Florida v. Jardines, which is also being argued in the Supreme Court this week. The Court found Fourth Amendment protection for postal mail in an 1877 case, but stumbled when faced with the next iteration of communications technology.

In the year this Court decided Ex Parte Jackson, both Western Union and the Bell Company began establishing voice telephone services. Gerald W. Brock, The Second Information Revolution 28 (Harvard University Press, 2003). Now, instead of written messages in the post, representations of the human voice itself began moving across distance, at light speed, in a way few people understood. This is the technology this Court confronted in Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438 (1928).

The Court handled this technological development poorly. Chief Justice William Taft fixed woodenly on the material things listed in the Fourth Amendment’s search and seizure clause. Wiretapping had not affected any of the defendants’ tangible possessions, he found, so it had not affected their Fourth Amendment rights. Olmstead, 277 U.S. at 464. In dissent Justice Butler noted how “contracts between telephone companies and users contemplate the private use” of telephone facilities. “The communications belong to the parties between whom they pass,” he said. Olmstead, 277 U.S. at 487 (Butler, J., dissenting). Cf. Ex Parte Jackson, 96 U.S. 727 (1877) (“Letters and sealed packages … are as fully guarded from examination and inspection … as if they were retained by the parties forwarding them in their own domiciles.”).

Florida v. Jardines is not a communications case. The issue is whether the sniff of a trained narcotics-detection dog at the front door of a house is a Fourth Amendment search requiring probable cause. Cato’s brief invites the Court to dispense with the unworkable “reasonable expectation of privacy” test, using the plain meaning of “search” instead.

Black’s law dictionary defines “search” as “looking for or seeking out that which is otherwise concealed from view.” Smells that only trained dogs can detect are indeed otherwise concealed from humans.

Familiar though ordinary pet dogs are, a trained dog is a chromatograph. The Court should follow the Fourth Amendment’s language and precedents like Kyllo v. United States to find that a drug-dog’s sniff is a search.

A companion to Jardines, Florida v. Harris, is being argued the same day. That case will examine the sufficiency of drug-dogs as evidence of wrongdoing, an issue that has not received careful examination in the past.

So it’s a big week for the Fourth Amendment in the Supreme Court. Stay tuned for developments.

Called it! Eleven Years Ago

What is this blog for, if not to let Cato scholars call out what smarty-pantses they are?

The Wall Street Journal reports on automobile license plates as the “new tracking frontier.”

For more than two years, the police in San Leandro, Calif., photographed Mike Katz-Lacabe’s Toyota Tercel almost weekly. They have shots of it cruising along Estudillo Avenue near the library, parked at his friend’s house and near a coffee shop he likes. In one case, they snapped a photo of him and his two daughters getting out of a car in his driveway. Mr. Katz-Lacabe isn’t charged with, or suspected of, any crime. Local police are tracking his vehicle automatically, using cameras mounted on a patrol car that record every nearby vehicle—license plate, time and location.

I didn’t have every detail, of course, but 11 years ago I noted the coming problem of license-plate tracking in testimony to a House Transportation subcommittee.

It was a little odd at the time, and still is, to talk about the privacy problem with license plates. But the emerging technology environment makes it essential to analyze and assess more carefully the information and identification demands that the government places on us.

[T]he requirement in all fifty states that cars must exhibit license plates linked to their owners is “anti-privacy” law, as would be a law requiring people to wear name tags in order to walk on public sidewalks. Mandatory license plates prevent citizens from exhibiting the expectation of privacy that Justice Harlan wrote about in Katz. Roughly speaking, they require people to expose their identities to police as a condition of driving on our roadways.

I expanded on “anti-privacy” law in my 2004 Cato Policy Analysis, “Understanding Privacy—and the Real Threats To It.”

We’re still grappling with the problem of privacy “in public.” The Supreme Court’s decision on GPS tracking in the Jones case is the most significant recent iteration of that. (Cato brief and related blog post; pre-decision posts: 1, 2, 3; post-decision posts: 4, 5, 6.) The latest Cato Supreme Court Review (also available digitally) includes an article of mine on the case. My latest thinking on Fourth Amendment privacy can by found in Cato’s brief in Florida v. Jardines.

It is possible to think systematically about privacy. Privacy is not just a morass of feelings about advancing technologies. Once one understands privacy (in its strongest sense) as the exercise of power to control information about oneself, one can see a decade ahead that license plates create privacy problems.

Pretty smart, huh? Yeah.

All Your Records Are Belong to U.S.

Twice in the last month, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed that the government can access records about you held by third parties without getting a warrant. It’s a nice illustration of the broad and deep reach of the “third party doctrine.”

U.S. v. Golden Valley Electric Association is the more recent of the two. In that case, the government delivered an administrative subpoena to a member-owned electricity cooperative asking for quite a bit of information about three residences it served:

customer information including full name, address, telephone number, and any account information for customer; method of payment (credit card, debit card, cash, check) with card number and account information; to include power consumption records and date(s) service was initiated and terminated for the period 10-01-2009 through 12-14-2010…

Golden Valley resisted the subpoena on a number of bases, including by arguing that criminal investigations require a warrant.

The court rejected the Fourth Amendment argument because the customer of a business like Golden Valley “lacks ‘a reasonable expectation of privacy in an item,’ like a business record, ‘in which he has no possessory or ownership interest.’” That’s the third-party doctrine: The government can access your electricity usage records and billing information without implicating the Fourth Amendment.

In mid-July, a different panel of the Ninth Circuit concluded the same thing about hotel records.

Los Angeles Municipal Code section 41.49 requires hotel operators to maintain information about their guests,

including name and address; total number of guests; make, type and license number of the guest’s vehicle if parked on hotel premises; date and time of arrival; scheduled date of departure; room number; rate charged and collected; method of payment; and the name of the hotel employee who checked the guest in.

These records must be held for 90 days and made available for inspection by any officers of the Los Angeles Police Department.

The owners of motels in Los Angeles challenged the law as a facial violation of the Fourth Amendment. The court rejected that argument, finding that the information the ordinance makes available to law enforcement “does not, on its face, appear confidential or ‘private’ from the perspective of the hotel operator.” For their part, hotel guests do not have a “reasonable expectation of privacy in guest registry information once they have provided it to the hotel operator.”

This is another unremarkable application of the third party doctrine, which says that people do not have Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure with respect to information they have shared with others.

Last January, in her concurrence to the Supreme Court’s ruling in U.S. v. Jones, Justice Sotomayor questioned the “third party doctrine” (as Justice Alito had done during oral argument).

[I]t may be necessary to reconsider the premise that an individual has no reasonable expectation of privacy in information voluntarily disclosed to third parties. This approach is ill suited to the digital age, in which people reveal a great deal of information about themselves to third parties in the course of carrying out mundane tasks. People disclose the phone numbers that they dial or text to their cellular providers; the URLs that they visit and the e-mail addresses with which they correspond to their Internet service providers; and the books, groceries, and medications they purchase to online retailers.

It is not a slam dunk that utility and hotel records should be Fourth-Amendment protected, requiring probable cause and a warrant before law enforcement can access them. But if electric providers and hoteliers maintain information in confidence due to contractual or regulatory obligations, that should extend the protection of the Fourth Amendment to what I think of as the digital effects created by modern living. This is not so much because of the sensitivities around electricity use or lodging, but because this is the rule we need to secure the much more sensitive data we routinely share and store with third parties online.

The Second-Day Story on U.S. v. Jones

Does a more careful reading of the Supreme Court’s decision in U.S. v. Jones turn up a lurking victory for the government?

Modern media moves so fast that the second-day story happens in the afternoon of the first. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday morning that government agents conduct a Fourth Amendment search when they place a GPS device on a private vehicle and use it to monitor a suspect’s whereabouts for weeks at a time. Monday afternoon, a couple of commentators suggested that the case is less a win than many thought because it didn’t explicitly rule that a warrant is required to attach a GPS device to a vehicle.

Writing on the Volokh Conspiracy blog, George Washington University law professor Orin Kerr noted “What Jones Does Not Hold.”

The Court declined to reach when the installation of the device is reasonable or unreasonable. … So we actually don’t yet know if a warrant is required to install a GPS device; we just know that the installation of the device is a Fourth Amendment “search.”

And over on Scotusblog, Tom Goldstein found that “The Government Fared Much Better Than Everyone Realizes”:

[D]oes the “search” caused by installing a GPS device require a warrant? The answer may be no, given that no member of the Court squarely concludes it does and four members of the Court (those who join the Alito concurrence) do not believe it constitutes a search at all.

So there is a constitutional search when the government attaches a GPS device to a vehicle, but the Court conspicuously declined to say that such a search requires a warrant. Do we have an “a-ha” moment?

When the Supreme Court granted certiorari in the case, it took the unusual step of adding to the questions it wanted addressed. In addition to “[w]hether the warrantless use of a tracking device on respondent’s vehicle to monitor its movements on public streets violated the Fourth Amendment,” the Court wanted to know “whether the government violated respondent’s Fourth Amendment rights by installing the GPS tracking device on his vehicle without a valid warrant and without his consent.” These are both compound questions, but the dimension added by the second is the Fourth Amendment meaning of attaching a device to a vehicle. The case was about attaching a device to a vehicle, and if the Court didn’t walk through every clause in each of the questions presented, that’s why.

On that central question in the case, the government argued the following: “Attaching the GPS tracking device to respondent’s vehicle was not a search or seizure under the Fourth Amendment.” The government lost, full stop.

Now, it’s true that the Court’s majority opinion didn’t explictly find that the “search” that occurs when attaching and using a GPS device requires a warrant, but look at its characterization of the opinion it affirmed: “The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed [Jones’s] conviction because of admission of the evidence obtained by warrantless use of the GPS device which, it said, violated the Fourth Amendment.”

The Court did decline to consider the argument that the government might be able to attach a device based on reasonable suspicion or probable cause—that argument was “forfeited” by the government’s failure to raise it in the lower courts—but if the Supreme Court were limiting its holding to the attachment-as-search issue, it would have remanded the case back to the lower courts for further proceedings consistent with the opinion. It did not, and the sensible inference to draw from that is that the general rule applies: a warrant is required in the absence of one of the customary exceptions. Failing to make that explicit was not “opening a door” to a latent government victory. U.S. v. Jones was a unanimous decision rejecting the government’s warrantless use of outré technology to defeat the natural privacy protections provided by law and physics.

At least one serious lawyer I know has raised the point that I address here, and it is a real one, but some in the commentariat are a little too showy with their analysis and far too willing to go looking for a government victory in what is nothing other than a government defeat.